Canadian Wool Roving
Raw wool transforms into wondrous things:
- Roving for weaving and spinning and needle-felting and stuffing
- Pure wool yarn – which can then become toys and sweaters and …
- Blankets and throws and lap robes
Our shearing story describes how it gets from the sheep to the big burlap bags for storage.
Here’s how raw wool travels from the farm to be processed at the traditional woollen mill in Prince Edward Island.
The bags weigh about 150 lbs when well packed, and are stored in the shearing area, upstairs in the barn. Three or four men load them onto a farm wagon hitched to a tractor. (No large tractor-trailers can cross on our ferry, so we haul them to the mainland).
This year we had over 5600 lbs of clean wool. Our sheep are pasture raised, so they grow more, longer-stapled wool to stay warm, and it’s cleaner as they don’t hang around in barns. The sheep are mainly North-Country Cheviot and Suffolk so the staple for weavers is similar to Corriedale.
The raw wool hits the ‘high seas’ crossing on the ferry.
We co-ordinate with the tractor trailer driver for timing. He’ll leave an empty, clean trailer for us to fill. (We’ve had adventures in the past with unwashed potato or cattle trucks heading back east, or drivers who gave us 15 minutes notice when we’re two hours away). We plan for a time when we aren’t taking too much space from our neighbours going to the mainland.
We haul the raw wool bags off the wagons and into the tractor trailer box. Ian loves the sight of those doors closing and calling the driver for pickup.
The mill uses only soap, no harsh chemicals so we are confident that the products that are produced for us, from our wool and others, will be the softest most hypoallergenic quality available.
Introduction to Needle Felting
Topsy Farms, outside the Wool Shed 14775 Front Road, Amherst Island, ON
Sat. Aug. 23 10:15 am -11:45 am $20 adults, $15 teens
(10 year old minimum – the needles are very sharp)
Needle felting uses a barbed needle which causes wool fibres to bind or fuse together. It is easy to learn and fun to do. You’ll be introduced to the shapes and methods needed to create many small figures.
Supplies provided (foam pad, two needles and wool) are yours to keep.
Create a small bird by the end of the workshop.
Taught by Lynn Wyminga of www.lynnslids.com
TO REGISTER, CALL TOPSY FARMS: 613 389-3444
for needle felting kits see http://store.topsyfarms.com/index.php?route=product/category&path=96_106_110
These pregnant ewes are on their way to the barn to be shorn. Their instincts to protect their young lambs from bad weather is enhanced by mamas having thin coats too. Shearing time is the most challenging few days of the year for our farm: we can’t shear wet sheep. The weather can be dry (as it has been this spring) for weeks on end, but lo and behold, when the inflexible shearing dates approach the forecasts are full of wet and cold doom and gloom. Why is this such a challenge? The shearers we hire to do the job are popular guys this time of year: they are booked solid in advance and shearing must happen, regardless of weather.
Do sheep have to lose their coats? Yes, ewes have to be shorn yearly for their health and well-being. We believe that the best time is in the spring, just before they lamb, when (hopefully) the weather is warming, but before the lambs are born. That way, after they have babies in tow, they’ll seek shelter if it is windy or cold. They don’t feel the weather if their coats are still on.
We invite families to visit shearing.
It rained steadily all Saturday, and despite our best efforts, 68 of the 1250 sheep to be shorn got wet. Fortunately the shearers are finishing a job elsewhere on the Island, so will return on Tuesday. There is a glory in the teamwork activity however. There are 3 shearers and 6 “roustabouts” working in the upstairs barn shearing area, with another three people backing them up.
The ‘rousies’ pick up and fling and skirt fleeces, and sweep floors. The space is purposefully snug, so people and animals aren’t travelling more than necessary. There is an almost ballet-like quality to the flow of action, with people keeping an eye on what is needed and who else is moving where, as they back each other up. The shearers finish each fleece in about 2 ½ minutes; nudge the animal out one gap so they can descend a ramp to the outside; click a counter to keep track of numbers; get their next ewe or lamb from their individual holding pen and start again. Meanwhile someone has to pick up the fleece in just the right way so it can be flung, right side up, on the skirting table. Someone else has to sweep the area so it is cleared for the next fleece, while not interrupting the movement of the shearer. It’s a dance. In the adjacent space, the fleece on the table is “skirted” with any dirty bits removed, then roughly bundled and put into an 8 ft hanging burlap bag, that is being solidly packed, then sewn and hauled up by block and tackle, then replaced by an empty one. A metal frame with ladder and a suspended bag takes the flow of fleeces while this is happening. Jacob or Kyle have been doing (or helping with) this job since they were about 5 or 6 years old. Meanwhile, Dianne prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner at her place and hauls hot water, coffee, tea, and snacks to the barn for mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks.
These are the ‘Bare-Naked Ladies – a variation on the theme – after shearing. Don and Ian keep the flock fed as well as moving unshorn sheep up the ramp into the holding pens on the second floor of the barn. They also moved the shorn sheep down the road to the shelter of our new barn. The action starts each day about 6:30 am. On the final night the men finished at 8:15 pm. Today, as forecast, there is rain and wind, mixed with snow – just an additional challenge. We do the best we can, providing barn shelter and wind-protected fields, and all the food they want.
Topsy Farms produces beautiful washable wool products including sheepskins, six point wool blankets, wool for knitting and felting, and some of the finest local lamb in Ontario.
When our flock is shorn each spring, the skilled shearers follow the same routine with each sheep. First the ewe is positioned on her bottom, leaning back and looking very relaxed, while the electric shears clean off her belly wool and the area around her udder. That wool tends to be contaminated by fecal matter, soil, burrs etc so is tossed in a separate place by the wall, before the rest of the fleece is removed, all in one piece. When the roustabouts gather the wool and sweep the area, the belly wool is moved and bagged separately. The fleece is flung onto a skirting table and any chaff-filled or mucky bits are removed and tossed towards the belly wool bag.
When we ship all our best fleeces – packed in eight foot bags – to P.E.I, the poorer-quality belly wool stays in the barn taking up space.
Frankly it is a nuisance.
I’ve used a good quantity of it for outdoor mulch in areas where I don’t plan to turn over the soil. It is great under hedges and beside the Wool Shed entrance, under flower pots. Nesting birds in the spring appreciate it greatly. We haven’t otherwise found use for it.
Once a year, it’s just a necessary clean-out barn chore to haul the belly wool to The Canadian Wool Growers in Carleton Place (near Ottawa). I believe they sell it for felting and carpets. The wool bags that filled the trailer and truck contained 1593 lbs of wool. Christopher says we will be paid enough to cover mileage.
As you see by the photo, we haven’t yet taken the brute strength and lugging out of all our farm chores. Don upstairs dragged the bags to the edge then lowered them to Ian and Chris who packed them carefully into Jacob’s truck and the farm trailer. Once well tied, they made the trip safely.
So, we are now all cleaned out and ready to do it again.
Bailage is hay cut earlier in the season, when conditions are still too wet to dry the cut for hay. It allows the farmers to get out on the land when they are chomping at the bit to get started, but forecasts are not yet for sufficient hot, dry weather.
But because of the moisture, it is vulnerable to rot. The bales once made are immediately transported to Christopher, who is demonstrating below the technique for wrapping bailage bales.
Bailage bales must stay clean and anaerobic, allowing fermentation.
The sheep consider it a huge treat in the fall and winter, and it saves us needing to purchase grain. Thus we continue to produce excellent lamb for private sale, and quality wool products, through our on-line store, and our at home outlet, the Wool Shed.
photos by Jacob
Some photos post shearing:
Don, unrolling hay for “ewe lambs” – they were lambs last year; now hopefully pregnant
Newly shorn lambs, crossing in front of our yard in evening light, on their way to shelter
After shearing we had 80 eight foot bags (from this year and some left from the previous year) packed firmly with quality wool, and 15 bags of belly wool and off cuts.
The next task was to get the wool bags to their destinations.
The first group to P.E.I.; some bags for landscape mulch; and the rest to the Canadian Woolgrower Co-operative in Carleton Place, Ontario.
Trucking costs a great deal, and over time we’ve tried lots of alternatives. We’d hoped it would be straightforward to find a potato-hauling truck heading back to that other Island, empty. Wrong. We’ve hired trucks ourselves and tried sharing space with our neighbours. One truck that had hauled cattle showed up unwashed, festooned with souvenirs of the previous load. We’ve had drivers phone us from 15 minutes away on the 401, expecting tractors, wagons and at least 3 helpers to magically materialize on the mainland. This year we hired a company from Quebec, and the results were the best yet.
But there were glitches.
Ian made arrangements to park our wagons with the wool carefully tarped at the Township Roads depot, where there is space for wagons, tractors and a transport. On Wednesday, he hauled one wagon by tractor to the ferry and then to the Township site. He waited for the next boat then returned on the tractor. He next brought two wagons in tandem to the ferry and, with help from the crew, got them both onto the deck then off and rehitched, thence to the depot. It was a long day, but a relief to have the wool all on site, waiting. The trucker was due on Friday.
However, Thursday was the day of very extreme winds (sufficient to blow the doors off two cars, locally). We received a call saying our tarps were tearing off the wool bags. Kyle and Ian rushed for the boat to find out that the eight foot waves were preventing docking on the mainland side.
We could not get to the mainland to save our wool.
Kyle sat in the lineup for hours, calling a friend on the mainland for emergency help. That friend somehow managed to wrestle the tarps in that heavy wind over the wool to give it some protection. It could have been destroyed if soaked then left sitting. The ferry was back in action later in the day, and Kyle managed to cross, and join his friend to anchor the protection securely.
Ian and Jacob joined Kyle the next morning off the 7 am ferry, and met the trucker, who showed up on time and with a clean trailer. He was unilingual francophone, but the language of smiles and helpful hard work is universal.
We’ll hire that company again.
Ian’s favorite picture of the year is the sight of the full truck, departing for its destination. (Sorry, I can’t show you – they were too busy to click.)
Most of our wool is shipped back to us according to our order as roving (washed and carded wool), either dyed or natural, cheeses of pencil roving, yarn, (30 colours and 4 tones of natural) and blankets and throws. All of these and much more are available at the farm store, the Wool Shed, or on-line.
Now, to deal with the 15 bags….
The first 3 sheep were on their bottoms on the shearing floor Friday morning at 8 am. (That is the position for shearing to begin – belly wool removed first.) We had a lovely day to get started, although forecasts warned us to be prepared for nasty weather to come. We’d prepared the best sheltered pasture with water, grain and fencing for the almost 500 sheep that were to be shorn the first day. Instead of pasturing, we decided to snuggle the newly naked ewes in the “New Barn” the first night. Cold, wind and rain are potentially hypothermic conditions to be avoided. The sheep yet to be shorn were all accommodated inside the “Grey Barn”, to keep them dry for the next day.
The top shearers can completely shear one sheep with no nicks in less than 3 minutes.
They direct the completed ewe through a swinging door that leads to a ramp down and outside. Each shearer has a catchment area, so they click a counter for one sheep done, grab the next, set her on her bum and start again. Meanwhile, a roustabout has to grab the fleece in a particular way so it can be flung right side up on the skirting table. Another ‘rousie’ has to sweep the shearing floor, keeping out of the way of the shearer. This, for all three shearers, each producing another fleece in less than 3 minutes.
It is active out there during shearing.
The fleece is ‘skirted’, i.e. all dirty bits removed and separately bagged. The fleeces are then bundled into an 8 ft bag suspended below the floor. Carl packs them firmly by climbing in and bouncing, then sews up the filled bags with baler twine and a sharp curved needle. He hauls each one up with a block and tackle, laying it on the floor. While he is doing this the skirted fleeces pile up, so we have a second overflow bag suspended on a frame. Anyone available climbs the ladder to dump in the mountain of accumulating fleeces until Carl is ready to accept more. The filled bags are each manhandled out the door and down to the farm wagon below. Once the wagon was filled, it was tarped and another moved in.
We loaded 3 wagons with a total of 80 bags.
Each bag weighing about 140 lbs. This included some of last years’ wool clip that wouldn’t fit on the truck when we shipped last year.
Dianne provides 5 meals a day. The shearers and Christopher get a hearty breakfast before going to the barn just after 7:30. She hauls hot water for washing, as well as coffee, tea, water, juice, fruit, and 3 kinds of home-baked snacks to the barn (upstairs) twice a day for mid-morning and afternoon breaks (called ‘smokos’ by those down-under). She provides a hot dinner for all the helpers and shearers at 1pm; and dinner for the shearers and Chris in the evening. That is very much part of the shearing labour.
Don, Ian and Jacob move the sheep up into the shearing holding pens before 8 am, add more sheep during each break, and move those already shorn to their destinations in the middle of the day and the others after shearing ends at 6pm. The days are long and active, as each smaller holding pen has to be watched and kept replenished.
Saturday poured all day. April showers bring shepherds headaches. We managed to keep the sheep to be shorn all under cover, and to provide shelter for the newly shorn sheep. We finished Sunday mid-morning.
We invite the public to come to watch shearing at Topsy Farms for free.
I wish I could send a sound track with this little story. Sheep are quiet when grazing, but quite vocal when disrupted. They have an impressive range of alto to deep bass voices. The guardian dogs too, are uneasy when routines are disrupted, and hang around, tails tentatively wagging but foreheads furrowed.
At the end of the day, when all were tucked away, our teenage dog, required to stay in the barnyard as he is too rambunctious, sang his mournful dirge to the sky.
Sheep have to be shorn once a year. It’s as regular as taxes. In earlier years the clip could provide a good income for a farm, but now represents a significant health expense. Ian initiated the Wool Shed to sell our wool as yarn, and blankets. All products are now available on-line too. We were facing yet another cost increase, and hoped that by selling our own wool and wool products, we could balance. That has worked – if you don’t count labour.)
The ewes are shorn while pregnant but not too close to birthing time.
(We don’t want to cause miscarriages.) If they are nearly naked when the lambs are born, they are more likely to seek shelter on a cold windy wet day, thus protecting their lambs. We also want to avoid the danger of a ewe with a thick wooly coat accidentally rolling on a small lamb without being able to feel its presence. For these reasons and others, we plan shearing as late in April as possible, since lambing is due to start after the first week of May. We hope by then it has warmed up.
We invite the public to come to watch. We hope they are hardy souls.
Since we seek the best shearers available, and they organize their touring geographically, we take what timing we can get. This year we thought it was to be the few days before Easter weekend, but now apparently, it is to be Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We’ll celebrate rebirth our own way, I guess.
One big advantage of that change of timing is that the forecast for Wednesday was heavy rain.
Shearers cannot, will not, shear wet sheep.
Think of the logistics of keeping about 1100 sheep dry (also fed and watered) on rainy days before shearing. It is our most stressful time of the entire year.
It takes quite a team of ‘roustabouts’ to support the activity of the three shearers during shearing. Changing the dates to include Easter weekend may cause ructions. It is flaming cold and windy and wet this week, 5 days in advance. We’re watching the forecasts avidly – as though there was much of anything we could do. All shelters are prepared.
The shearing area is empty 362 days of the year, so that’s the storage space for the Wool Shed. Ian has spent the last few days, checking inventory, amalgamating boxes, topping up the Wool Shed supplies, and cramming the inventory into Don’s woodworking room. Life on the farm is not dull.
Here’s a video featured on Canadian Geographic talking to the shepherds at shearing time at Topsy Farms.